In this new century, art collectors and dealers have come to recognize that there isn't one monolithic African American school of art. Artists of African descent, just as all artists do, choose creative expressions that reflect their individual artistic, social and intellectual concerns. African American artists today explore their heritage, their culture and art itself in a wide variety of art forms and media, as they always have.
"There is no such thing as Black Art," declared Josh Wainwright, rather ironically, since he produces the annual National Black Fine Art Show, scheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 2 in New York. This expo, with 40-plus participating dealers exhibiting more than 400 artists, has become the primary showcase in the United States for African American art, as well as contemporary African and Caribbean art.
More and more, Wainwright observed, the art market "is focused on the quality of the work itself, not the style. Afro-centric imagery is becoming less important in African American art. But getting exposure is still what's difficult for African American artists. By far, the majority collectors of art by African Americans are still African Americans, though that is beginning to change."
Today, said Wainwright, there is heightened interest among art cognoscenti in several discreet, distinctive areas of African American art, including: African American photography; vernacular art with an untrained, Southern aesthetic; abstract, non-narrative, non-objective art by African American artists; and cutting-edge works that are defined by not being defined as African American art--in shorthand, Post-Black art. At the same time, greater attention is being paid now to works and artists of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s which advanced the idea that African American artists should affirm and take pride in their own cultural identity. Each of these categories recently have been marked by well-attended traveling art exhibitions, shows at commercial fine art galleries and increased collecting, according to art dealers and curators.
Black Arts Movement Experiences Revival
Today, Black Arts Movement artists have been the subject of several current retrospective exhibits, including "Beyond the Fixed Star: The Art of Murray DePillars" at the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Va., in mid-2002. DePillars, the retired dean of art at Virginia Commonwealth University, is still an active member of the collaborative art movement AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), which was established in Chicago in the 1960s. In 1967, a small band of African American artists got out paintbrushes and covered the wall of a dilapidated Southside Chicago building with portraits of Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Muhammad Ali, Thelonius Monk and W.E.B. DuBois. They called the mural, "The Wall of Respect."
The central tenets of AfriCobra include black pride, the goal of making art accessible to the black community, social responsibility and the development of a strong African identity in Diaspora. The artists' styles run from abstract to expressionist to figurative, but they tend to use luminescent, vibrant Kool-Aid colors, elaborate orchestral symmetry, syncopated patterning and positive imagery.
"AfriCobra was really considered on the cutting edge of political art and on the cutting edge of gaining proprietorship over the black image in art. We were trying to get away from the stereotypic imagery of romantic primitivism in African American art," DePillars said. DePillars' own work today remains very much in this vein. His intellectual paintings are rooted both in Africa and America, exploring the strong design elements of traditional African textiles and sculpture in their use of patterns and saturated yellows, reds, blues, pinks, greens and black.
"The AfriCobra artists collective in particular are really experiencing an increased visibility …